In politics, “grassroots” isn’t always what it seems.
Debate over public policy can often seem impenetrable to the outside observer as countless interest groups with non-descript names fill the media bandwidth with talking points. This over-saturated media environment is, at least partly, overwhelming by design. “Astroturfing” is the practice of creating the appearance of grassroots groups while hiding the source of funding or messaging. An effective astroturf campaign can produce multiple “grassroots” groups echoing the messaging of a hidden sponsor while creating the appearance of popular movement with local community support.
Examples of astroturfing are widespread but the recent public debate over the future of net neutrality – the principle that all Internet traffic is treated equally – has pitted grassroots activists against cable company funded astroturf groups in a public high stakes battle for the future of Internet access in the United States. The National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA) is the biggest donor to Broadband for America, a coalition of community groups who sign letters petitioning the FCC against designating Internet access as a public utility, a key issue supported by net neutrality proponents, or implementing other net neutrality principles. Many of the coalition members receive direct payments from the NCTA. One donor, the NCTA, funds many of the actors in this supposed coalition of grassroots groups, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at it. And that’s the entire point of an effective astroturf campaign.
—Eli Clifton is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute. He is co-author of the Center for American Progress’s report Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.